As the international battle against COVID-19 continues, medical professionals are working tirelessly to find a way to combat the disease from plaguing thousands more victims. Recently, two major pharmaceutical companies, Pfizer and Moderna, have taken on the challenge of creating a vaccine that would grant its respective users a safe haven against the virus that has taken the world by storm.
Due to the nature of their compositions and the timelines of their creation, these vaccines have broken historical precedents on many fronts. Typically, vaccines can take 10-15 years of laboratory testing and clinical trials, but, with “Operation Warp Speed” (OWS), the nation was put into hyperdrive to speed up this lengthy process. Vaccines are “made by taking viruses or bacteria and weakening them so that they can’t reproduce… themselves very well or so that they can’t replicate at all” (How are Vaccines Made and Why Do They Work?). Both companies strayed greatly from the traditional model of vaccine creation in that their shots are made from mRNA (messenger RNA) instead of a live virus, such as an influenza vaccination. To account for the limited window of time available, scientists needed to find a solution that would not put a patient at risk, leading them to explore alternative methods of production. Pfizer and Moderna operated independently from the OWS program, taking funds from a German organization, to pursue a long-anticipated technology. An mRNA vaccine would “encode a messenger RNA with the information to produce the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein” and in using “the ribosomes in our cells, these mRNAs will be translated into an excretable version of the spike protein” (Brothers). Due to the foreign nature of these proteins, human bodies would react to their presence as if they were a real disease, causing this method to be an “excellent target for memory B cells to produce antibodies against” (Brothers). In the summer, Pfizer and Moderna were noted to be the only businesses attempting this approach and were able to complete the early stages of clinical trials, hinting at promise for the success of their vaccines. In the third stage, groups received either a real vaccine or a placebo, followed by close monitoring for weeks after to measure the effectiveness of the injection. Due to the highly infectious nature of COVID-19, the process of testing the shots became easier as more patients were eligible to participate. As the stage came to an end, these pharmaceutical companies reported a 95% efficiency rate, proving their competence in disseminating their SARS-CoV-2 armory to millions of people worldwide, all in less than a year.
With two major names leading a pharmaceutical race to a vaccine, what separates these two biological weapons against COVID-19? The Pfizer vaccine is currently targeted for people over 16, whereas Moderna created their drug to first serve adults over the age of 18. Moderna is continuing to work on expanding their customer demographic by focusing on making their vaccine eligible for 12-17 year olds as well. Although both vaccines greatly reduce the risk of catching a severe case of the virus, it remains a mystery if patients can still receive COVID-19 asymptomatically and transmit it this way. Additionally, both companies have created a vaccine that comes in two steps: a priming dose and a booster shoot. The duration of time between each subsequent shot differs for each company as “the interval between Moderna doses is 28 days” and “for the Pfizer vaccine, it’s 21 days” (Branswell). An interesting idea to acknowledge is that the dosage for Pfizer is significantly lesser than that of Moderna, yet they yield the same results. Both vaccines require to be shipped and stored in extremely cold temperatures to preserve their composition and effectiveness; however Moderna only needs a temperature of -4 Fahrenheit where Pfizer must remain in a freezer of -94 Fahrenheit. This massive difference in storage techniques causes Moderna’s vaccine to be easier for doctor’s offices and pharmacies to distribute. Moreover, the window they have to be used in varies as “a vial of the Pfizer vaccine must be used within five days” but “Moderna’s is stable at fridge temperature for 30 days and at room temperature for 12 hours” (Branswell). Despite the variations in the two vaccines, they both prove to be effective in their ability to prevent COVID-19 and, thus, containing the spread and doing their jobs.
Like any vaccine, the COVID-19 shot has presented common side effects, illustrating their efficitives as they kick the immune system into gear. Frequently, it has been noted that patients are experiencing “injection site pain, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, and joint pain,” just as they would with any other shot (Branswell). Furthermore, the side effects are a slightly more severe following the booster shot and are more prominent in young adults; however, the vaccine has not caused any lasting issues in those who have received it that have not gone away in a few days. Women who are pregnant or lactating have been excluded from testing at the moment while the two companies pursue research in animals to see if any trend could be mimicked in the human population. No signs were detected so currently, women must consult their doctors before making the decision to receive the vaccine. Overall, the side effects of these new vaccines are outweighed by the benefits of protecting oneself and their loved ones in a time of great uncertainty.
In order to better understand the vaccines, I spoke with Dr. Patrick Ciccone of New Jersey Urology and Dr. Gabriella Sheffer, a registered pharmacist, to hear about their views on these new medications and their own experiences in receiving the injections. Dr. Ciccone, a recent patient of the Pfizer vaccine, shared that “no one on [his] staff has any side effects other than injection-site soreness” after members of his practice received a mix of either vaccine. We conversed about the production of this shot using the mRNA technology and how going forward, “future vaccines will likely follow this structure as it allows a faster and more efficient production.” He shared that there is research currently being done that will determine when future booster shots would be required as vaccine recipients donate their blood to track the presence of antibodies. Dr. Sheffer shared her experience as the injection site “felt like a bee sting that progressed to have slight pain and itchiness, but subsided after a few days.” I asked about what will happen if many refuse to take part in this effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 to which she explained that “we will need to rely on herd immunity as those who receive the vaccine in turn protect themselves and those around them, consequently lowering the amount of active cases.” Herd immunity is the principle that as more people receive protection from a given illness, it prevents them from spreading it to the community, causing the group to minimize the chance of infection. These members of the medical community brought great perspective to the newest addition to the field’s advancements and highlight hope for a future that can contain COVID-19.
Pfizer and Moderna have joined the history books in being the companies that have produced a vaccine in the shortest amount of time as well as playing an integral role in reducing COVID-19 cases worldwide. As time progresses, it is imperative to remain vigilant in being cautious and registering for the vaccine when it becomes available in your state. Each state is handling this process differently with some allowing pre-registration, and administering the vaccine in stages based off of various at-risk groups. COVID-19 may have taken over the world, but thanks to the work of essential workers, we are one step closer to making the coronavirus a distant memory.
@HelenBranswell, Helen Branswell, et al. “A Side-by-Side Comparison of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna Vaccines.” STAT, 29 Dec. 2020, www.statnews.com/2020/12/19/a-side-by-side-comparison-of-the-pfizer-biontech-and-moderna-vaccines/.
Brothers, Will. “A Timeline of COVID-19 Vaccine Development.” BioSpace, BioSpace, 3 Dec. 2020, www.biospace.com/article/a-timeline-of-covid-19-vaccine-development/.
“How Are Vaccines Made and Why Do They Work?” PKIDs, www.pkids.org/immunizations/how_they_work.html.